In late 2010, just prior to what was the national uprising which triggered Ben Ali’s overthrow, “the action” so to speak centered around the interior town of Gafsa, deep inside Tunisia’s interior, 198 Km (124 miles) from the coastal city of Sfax. The main issue was unemployment as the country’s phosphate mining industry had gone from employing 20,000 workers to a mere 8,000 over the course of prior twenty years or so. No economic development program to absorb the unemployed labor had been seriously considered. When a number of community and labor leaders were arrested for demonstrating for jobs, the region, and soon thereafter, the entire country exploded.
The Tunisian events of 2010-2011 not only rocked Tunisia but set in motion “the Arab Spring” (the announcement of death of which, this author believes entirely pre-mature) – nothing short of a Middle East, North Africa (MENA) region wide rebellion that shook, and continues to shake, the world. As with the rest of the region, the Tunisian Revolution – if one can call it that – remains an unfinished work. Some, but not all of the past, has been swept away, what might be called, the surface gunk. Looking back on historic moment five years on, a number of themes emerge.
1. Religion played virtually no role in the events. That the slogans, if one likes, the program of the uprising, what motivated almost an entire nation to take to the streets, for many to risk and give their lives, were seemingly forgotten by many within months after the Ben Ali’s had fled the country. It had three essential goals – greater economic prosperity for a greater percentage of the population, greater democracy (including freedom of speech) in a country that had become increasingly totalitarian and an end to the pervasive corruption, greed and repression that were the hallmarks of the Ben Ali – Trabelsi period.
Put another way, this was a revolt about “bread and roses” and if it triggered a region wide movement in its wake it is because the problems of Tunisia were by no means unique to this small North African country wedged between the two oil-giant neighbors, Algeria and Libya. What stood out at the time was the degree to which how little religion was a moving factor in the uprising. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that it played no role at all at the time. Questions which would nag at the nation soon after such as “what kind of Muslim are you” – were irrelevant, in large measure because the nation has long been overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim (with its own North African brand that recognized what are referred to as marabouts). No, it was all about the economic and political system which had been in turmoil for decades.
This begs the question, that if religion, the kind of Islam to be practiced in the country and its relationship to the national identity, played no role in the uprising – and the religious parties – the Salafists, the Ennahdha Party were not significant factors in the revolt, how is it that religious issues can to the fore with such force soon thereafter and that a political party like Ennahdha, essentially the Muslim Brotherhood chapter in Tunisia closely coordinating its politics with like elements in Turkey, Egypt and Qatar, was able to dominate the Tunisian political scene?
2. Those who “made the revolution” were not those who came to power afterwards. In fact, for the most part, “they” were almost immediately side-lined and those who were able to maintain influence, did so only for a short time. Who were “they”? Well, most of the country, but with unemployed youth playing a major role…soon joined by civil society organizations, labor (at first locally and then nationally), small business …and even some very wealthy elements in Tunisian society whose prosperity was being sidelined or stolen by the Ben Ali and Trabelsi clans.
But what stands out about them, was that while had the force to expel Ben Ali, that they were not organized into a political force with a program and a vision. I would also point out here that there has been a global tendency going back to the movement in the Philippines to unseat the Marcos’s to rid a country of a dictator…but not change, or hardly change, the system. As with the movements in Eastern Europe and the USSR to overthrow communism, those elements that actually triggered the changes, who organized and sacrificed to bring down the system, were, like the Tunisian radicals, quickly sidelined and neutralized. To what degree was this “planned” by “outside forces” is difficult to prove, …although there is no doubt, that in the Tunisian case, “outside forces” – both in the Middle East and beyond were actively and openly involved.
3. It is startling, looking at Tunisia today, from an institutional view-point, how little has changed from the Ben Ali period. And here I would like to elaborate in a bit more detail.
a. What hasn’t changed at all – is the economic model. Tunisia remains a semi-peripheral export-oriented economy whose two major markets – thus its economic survival – being France and Italy. It remains committed, as it was during the Ben Ali period to IMF-World Bank structural adjustment arrangements – with all they entail – as conditional to receiving needed economic aid without which, it is highly possible the country’s economy would collapse. Such policies, if giving short term relief, have done little to nothing to put the country on a new, different, dearly needed path, and worse. Rhetoric aside, there has been no – literally nothing – in terms of infra-structural, economic development plans for the country’s interior and southern regions. If anything the unemployment level is even higher today than it was in January 2011.
When one remembers, that the 2011 uprising was primarily triggered by economic and social disparities and that now those disparities are not only growing, but that nothing has been done to narrow the gap, it suggests that social explosions will inevitably continue.
b. Very little changes in the country’s main institutions – the Ministry of Interior, the banking and financial sectors, the political and economic players in the country – minus the Ben Ali’s – have remained largely in tact. Ennahdha did add a new element…but essentially made its agreements with the old Ben Ali-installed order. That a figure as stale (as well as undemocratic, and essentially something approaching senile) as Beji Caid Essebsi could emerge as the country’s leading political figure is a powerful indication of how little things have changed. Essebsi has brought with him a good many people active in the economy and politics from Ben Ali era. Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes party includes many members of Ben Ali’s old Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique (RCD) party.There is so much just plain circulated of old blood in the new order, which is in fact, the old order with a new, and often not even that new, vocabulary.
Where is it all headed? Can the positive momentum, hope for the future outpace the looming social shadows hanging over the country?
This article was originally published in View from the Left Bank.